Book review · Sci-fi · Young adult

WANT + RUSE by Cindy Pon: Spoiler-Free Series Review

Today, I’m reviewing the two books in the Want duology by Cindy Pon, which follows a group of Asian teenagers in a near-future, very polluted world as they try to make the situation better. It’s mainly about class privilege and environmentalism.

There won’t be any spoilers for either books.

32333174Want is one of the best YA dystopians ever published.
I tend not to like dystopians. Some of them don’t work because they’re thinly-disguised romances in which the “dystopian” part doesn’t make any sense, and most of them aren’t that interesting to read because the setting is always a terribly bland future version of the USA.

Not in this book, and I don’t mean that just because it’s set in Taipei. Want is a story that portrays hope in a ruined world not only through the plot, but also through the setting. For a story set in a polluted city, it’s very atmospheric, and there are so many beautiful descriptions – not only of the extravagant sci-fi technology, but also of the night markets, of the food, of the ways humans try to change their appearance when they can do nothing to change how sick the world looks around them. It also shows this future Taipei as a city of contradictions, the rich and the extremely poor, the old temples side-by-side with sci-fi skyscrapers. The setting is as developed as the characters, and like them, it has its own charm.

Let’s talk about the characters, then. This is the story of Jason Zhou and his group of friends, who managed to bring down an evil corporation by kidnapping an heiress and infiltrating the rich. They’re hackers and thieves and they’re trying to do the right thing in a world in which injustice is everywhere. I really liked reading about Jason – he’s the kind of character who really feels like a teenage boy but doesn’t end up being insufferable (and he also throws knives, which I appreciate).
My other two favorite characters were:
🎭 Lingyi, the bisexual hacker who is amazing and in a relationship with Iris, a mysterious acrobat;
🎭 Daiyu. She’s the best character in this book, and when I read it for the first time (in 2017) my reaction was “why can’t I marry her right now”. She’s smart, she’s competent, she’s beautiful, she’s aware she’s privileged and actually does something about it.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book are the themes. It’s a story about environmentalism and anti-capitalism, and it doesn’t shy away from showing how messed up the situation can get. And the thing is, I can see some parts of this book happening, and in a not-so-far future. Want feels both relevant and realistic, like a good dystopian should.

This book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the story got lost in paragraphs of exposition, and because many of the characters already knew each other, we’re told about their friendships and relationships instead of shown, so they didn’t feel as real as they could have.
Also, the literature references got a bit cheesy, but I didn’t mind that too much. I love cheesy sometimes, just as much as I love decadent – is it weird that part of the appeal of this book is reading the descriptions of the parties thrown by the corrupt rich people? There’s so much beauty in here, and I love when beauty is just a layer covering the rot.

My rating: ★★★★½

35274032I didn’t love Ruse as much as I loved Want. I do think it is a solid sequel, and worth reading if you liked the first book, but the combination of my expectations and this book just not being as compelling and well-paced as the first one was led me to enjoy it less.

Let’s talk about expectations: I believed Lingyi would be the main narrator of this book. She’s not; most of the novel is still narrated by Jason Zhou, and while Lingyi is slightly more prominent and has a few chapters in her PoV, she still doesn’t get much development or more depth that she had in the first book.
While I love Zhou, I expected this book to be different, to get more into Lingyi and Iris’ history, and their relationship. It doesn’t.

I also thought this book was less thematically strong than the first one. It still talks about class and environmentalism, which I really appreciate, but it does nothing with these messages that the first book didn’t already do more effectively. The descriptions of the excesses of the rich and the poverty felt far more vivid in the first book.
The pacing was also uneven, which made some of the flaws already present in Want stand out even more, like the lack of character development (the only character who actually gets an arc is Daiyu. Who is of course the best character in the book and we don’t deserve her).

However, I still really enjoyed reading this! I loved reading about this diverse group of teenagers trying their best to take down an evil rich man. They doubt each other and mess up and feel guilty for not being able to do more in a world that is so unjust, but… I admire all of them a lot.
Also, the novel was still very atmospheric (it’s set in Shanghai instead of Taipei this time and I really liked seeing this new place from Lingyi and Zhou’s eyes), and it has the kind of food descriptions that will make you hungry.

My rating: ★★★½

Overall, I thought this was a really interesting and original series, and it’s one of the few YA dystopians I feel like I can recommend.

What are your favorite dystopians?

Book review · Fantasy · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: The Fever King by Victoria Lee

39897058The Fever King is the first book in a futuristic sci-fantasy series set in what is left of the once-United States. It follows a main character who is bisexual, Jewish and Colombian and it features a main m/m romance. It’s a story that talks about a lot of interesting themes, and I’m going to get to that in this review, but first I want to talk about what this book made me think about predictability.

Was The Fever King completely predictable? Yes.
Did I care? Not even a little, and that should tell you something about how well-written these characters are.

I think we often use “this was predictable” to mean that a book was boring and banal. And I mean, that’s often true, especially for books in which predictability isn’t the point – I… wouldn’t complain about predictability in the romance genre, you know – but sometimes it’s just not.
Sometimes a book is predictable because it took the path you wanted it to have, because it developed in a way that made sense, because the author didn’t decide to sacrifice a perfectly solid and entertaining storyline for the sake of shock value. And as long as the main character isn’t naive or unobservant for no reason – and here, that wasn’t the case (I’m going to explain why later) – I’m not going to penalize a book for doing what it should have done.

And did this book go there. The Fever King is set in a country with an internal refugee crisis and an external persecution problem, as it’s the only state in the world that doesn’t imprison people who have magical powers, and it’s a story about how people react to personal and generational trauma, a story about whether and how much the goal can justify the means.
If you know anything about me, you should also know that this last sentence is probably the thing I like to see the most in fiction. Why? Because it makes for terrific villainous characters. And this was no exception. I can’t tell you as much as I’d like about the character I’m talking about – because while it’s a very predictable storyline, I’d rather write a spoiler-free review – but I found him really fascinating and awful, and isn’t that the best combination? As usual, the characters that make me think “I want to know more!” and “please die, like, right now” are the ones I feel strongly about

I also really liked the main character, Noam. He’s the son of immigrants, and after he survived a deadly virus and became a witchling, he’s thrust in a world that represents everything he has always hated – and to see how conflicted he is, how he’s desperately looking for allies and at the same time kind of wants to go back? He was a really interesting character to read about.
And his romance with Dara? The way they start out suspicious of each other but grow closer anyway and still don’t really know what’s the right thing to do… I have a lot of feelings, it must be that I just really like reading about confused young gays who are trying their best to do the right thing.

Click here to see why I didn’t think Noam was too oblivious (SPOILERS)

…most of the naïveté and looking the other way was totally Lehrer-induced, come on. It’s literally his power. The reason I didn’t get frustrated with Noam’s behavior is exactly that this book was so predictable I guessed Lehrer’s power before halfway through and… if you read this novel with that in mind, the parts in which Noam is being supernaturally manipulated are pretty blatant?
A certain character says that maybe Lehrer needs to order something to you directly to make you do it, but there are parts of this book that strongly imply otherwise (and it’s the only thing this book actually used subtlety for, and maybe it shouldn’t have, because I think many are missing it?)
Anyway, it’s funny that I finally have found a book in which the predictability was a positive thing, I would have disliked the main character otherwise.

The other side characters weren’t that developed, but seeing how marginal most of them were, it wasn’t that much of an issue. (This also meant that there isn’t a woman who has a relevant role in the whole book, which I… don’t really like)

I liked reading about this world. It looks like a horrible place to be in, but it also has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve read in a while, both because it includes superpowers I had never seen in a novel before – the main character main’s power is technopathy, basically magical hacking – and because it’s based on knowledge; you can get new powers if you study (for example, you can get telekinesis from physics).
What I liked less about the world is that I often had no idea how anything looked like, but I can’t say I didn’t like the writing either, because this is the kind of story that felt effortless and that I went through in less than two days, two days during which it took over my head and I couldn’t think about anything else.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Empire of Light by Alex Harrow

39866780“Quiet moments? I don’t know them”
― Empire of Light, probably

The author says they write “queerness with a chance of explosion” and – for this book at least – that’s such an understatement. This is probably the most frenzied book I’ve ever read.

Empire of Light is the first book in a very queer futuristic sci-fantasy series. This first book felt like a fast-paced dystopian focused on a m/m/m love triangle to me, but I think that as the series goes on, “dystopian” could become a restrictive term to describe it. I love stories that blur the lines between genres.

As I mentioned before, what stood out to me the most about this book was how it never slowed down. The characters were almost always getting shot at, and when they weren’t getting shot at, they were having sex. I haven’t seen so many shooting and explosion scenes since Zero Sum Game, and just like I said about that book, I think Empire of Light would work well on a screen. However, as this book tries to pull off a lot of plot twists – some better executed than others, I have to say – the “getting shot at” parts got somewhat confusing sometimes.
I could say that this book would have benefited from slowing down, but every pacing choice has its own advantages: I’m in a slump, and I flew through this, and I managed to do that because Empire of Light is the kind of book that doesn’t let you breathe. In spite of that, it manages to not become soulless like too many plot-driven, action-packed books do, because the main relationships are developed, dynamic and interesting.

This novel is mainly impossible to sum up because of spoilers and the amount of political intrigue, backstabbing and twists there are, but I can say that it is about Damian, an assassin for hire, as he grows apart from Aris, his higly-unstable magical lover, and gets closer to a mysterious revolutionary named Raeyn. I found the development of Damian and Aris’ relationship fascinating. I have read many (and still not enough, because the “many” isn’t “most”) books that have an interesting storyline following two characters who get together, but I have never read a story about a relationship falling apart that felt so real and compelling at the same time.

However, I can’t say the same about the side characters, and the aspects in which this book fell flat to me are all related to the side characters. They were flat, underdeveloped, and I didn’t feel anything about them when they inevitably died.
Also: I really appreciated the diversity and I’m glad I found another mostly-queer if not all-queer book, with a demisexual main character and prominent supporting characters who are polyamorous no less, but… the fact that the queer black girl died sacrificing herself for the main character didn’t sit well with me. The main character is a queer person of color himself and there are trigger warnings at the beginning which explicitly tell you that’s going to happen, but I kept thinking that wasn’t necessary at all.
Also, at some point I was really annoyed by the fact that all women were either evil or dead, and while that got somewhat better by the end of the novel, I’d like m/m books to remember that it would still be nice if they passed the Bechdel test sometimes.

My rating: ★★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: God’s War + Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

18041972God’s War is the first book in a sci-fantasy series about bounty hunters, magical bugs and an unending holy war, Bel Dame Apocrypha.

For a book about bug-powered magic, it was surprisingly tame on the bug side of things. Yes, this is my first complaint because I had hoped for more, far more detail. If you’ve followed me for a while, you may know that The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley is one of my favorite books of all time because a) it’s an all-lesbian space opera with a villain romance and b) it has creepy biopunk horror descriptions and I love them.
There was so much potential for biopunk horror descriptions here, but it didn’t go in that direction most of the time and I’m sad. Not enough insect limbs. People replace organs regularly but no one has tried to grow antennae. Not good. Be weirder.

(I also read this while I was recovering from surgery and this book starts with the main character being perfectly functional right after the removal of one of her body parts, her womb. I feel personally attacked.)

This book is set in Nasheen, a violent matriarchy, and Chenja, a patriarchal, very religious society – and they are at war for… reasons. Vague reasons. There are also shapeshifters and various countries disagree on shapeshifter ethics. Everything is set in a very vaguely-middle-eastern world.
The worldbuilding felt like someone was playing the throw-ideas-at-the-page-and-see-what-sticks game, because there were so many things going on at the same time and none of them made sense together. It’s not that I didn’t like them, it’s that they didn’t always feel developed nor thematically coherent.

Now, let’s talk about the religious themes. I loved that the main character of a book focused on religion and holy war was a bisexual atheist, and I loved how the setup of the societies allowed the author to play with gender roles. Ruthless women and religious, physically weak men aren’t a common combination. Female characters aren’t usually allowed to be the way Nyx is, sexual but not sexualized, morally gray and violent and aggressive and still not villains. This book also showed many different kinds of strength in different female characters.
On the other hand, for a book about a holy war, very little is said about the actual religion. Some characters pray, some don’t, some believe and some hate others for not believing, but what do they actually believe in? All I know is that the religion is vaguely inspired from Islam, it borrows some characteristics like clothing (hijabs are mentioned) but is not Islam.
This feels like lazy writing, if not appropriation.

I liked the characters – a diverse squad! a main character with dyslexia in SFF! – but I don’t know if I want to read a whole trilogy from their point of view since I didn’t care about the world.

My rating: ★★★¼

36489545Apocalypse Nyx is a collection of short fiction from the Bel Dame Apocrypha universe. These stories are set before most of the events in God’s War and follow Nyx and her squad on various missions in which they risk their lives.
I liked this collection more than the actual book. My favorite aspects of God’s War were the characters and their dynamics, more than the plot (which wasn’t that surprising) or the worldbuilding (which I didn’t love).

The Body Project – ★★★½
Nyx is investigating the death of a man she once knew at the front.
In this story we see how Anneke became part of Nyx’s squad, which was really interesting. My favorite part of this was definitely Nyx’s and Rhys’ banter (it killed me). The worldbuilding is still disappointing and I don’t think that’s going to change – I’m not sure what’s going on with Nasheen’s foreign politics because there are too many countries, all of them stereotyped. So much wasted potential, but I’m here for the characters and not that.

The Heart Is Eaten Last – ★★★★
This one had some seriously creepy parts. The heart scene – the scene that gave the title to this story? – was awful in the best way possible and I totally understand Rhys. I would have liked this story more if it had been shorter, but again, I liked it more than the book. It’s about a failed Bel Dame trying to frame Nyx, and Khos joining Nyx’s team.
Rhys and Nyx’s not-relationship is more developed in these stories than in the book (I guess it helps to have more quiet scenes, they kind of got sacrificed in God’s War).

Soulbound – ★★★★½
Nyx and her squad meet a woman who is dissecting bodies to find their souls.
This was fast-paced and short and hilarious and exactly what I wanted from this collection. I love all the characters now – I almost feel like they work better in short fiction than in novel format.
This is a story about souls and believing and what war does to faith when faith drives the war. I really liked how the religious themes were explored in this story (I didn’t love what God’s War did with them because again, wasted potential, but this was perfect).

Crossroads at Jannah – ★★★
Finally some more details on the biopunk insect technology! Another of my minor problems with God’s War was how little detail we got on the bug sci-fantasy system, which is probably the most interesting aspect of the worlbuilding.
The story itself didn’t have much depth and it was kind of predictable, but I really liked the ending.

Paint It Red – ★★½
Nyx can’t rest even on her days off, because someone is either always trying to kill her or asking her to repay some kind of debt.
This felt unnecessary. I’m reading this book for the squad dynamics, not for Nyx to go and fight with other people I don’t care about. But the f/f/f threesome was almost worth it.

My rating: ★★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

26114545Too Like the Lightning is the first book in the sci-fi quartet Terra Ignota (“unknown land” in Italian). The sequels are Seven Surrenders, The Will to Battle and Perhaps the Stars.

It took me ten tries to get through the first chapter and I’m not even sure why I did this to myself, but I did it and now I feel accomplished. To review this book properly, I’d need to reread it, but that’s not happening, I’m never putting myself through this again.

Too Like the Lightning is the kind of book I would love to discuss because there is a lot going on, but it’s not like I would ever recommend it to someone unless I kind of hated them.
Why? Because it’s unreadable.

Look, you can’t write a book whose first half is 90% worldbuilding and expect me to follow what’s happening, I’ll get bored. It doesn’t work, it didn’t work, and I still liked it. How can you be bored out of your mind and still like a book?
I have no idea, but it happened. I’ll try to explain.

Too Like the Lightning is set on Earth in 2454, in a society that globally outlawed religion and gender. In many ways, it’s better than our own, and its inhabitants would tell you that they live in an utopia. But do they?
The main character, who is also the narrator, seems to disagree. He believes that many things left in the past are worth restoring, so he decided to use “the language of the philosophers of the 18th century”, which includes gendered pronouns, and he has no idea how to use them. Mycroft ends up gendering people arbitrarily: he doesn’t care about looks (or how people identify, as no one identifies as anything), but he has his own stereotyped ideas of what femininity and masculinity are. To us they seem really unusual, almost as if an alien was trying to understand gender.

Mycroft is the worst narrator ever. He’s unreliable, he’s pretentious, he goes off topic far too often, and he’s an all-around bad person. A very well-written one. I also think he lies a lot, but that’s a hunch.
I almost DNFed this at least three times, but I wanted to keep reading, even when Mycroft was infodumping me again (there were a lot of infodumps), because the questions this book raises are really interesting. Also, I know many of the philosophers referenced here because I studied them last year, so that was fun.

Yes, the first half of the book is 90% infodumps, but this meant the worldbuilding was so complex I almost forgave them. Almost. But I have to say there’s a lot to talk about here.
For me, Too Like the Lightning nailed all That Inevitable Victorian Thing got wrong (as usual, YA sci-fi fails at everything). Both books are so full of infodumps I wonder how they got published, but at least the first addresses what needed to be addressed. It’s set in an “utopia”, but the narration doesn’t shy away from showing you the ugly side, the part we’d like to forget about. The main character doesn’t necessarily think this is an utopia – after all, the line between utopia and dystopia is thin.

That’s also why the reviews that called out this book make no sense to me. This book is set in an “utopia”, but this society’s attitude towards gender isn’t actually that progressive, so… this book is problematic? No, that was the whole point. This book doesn’t state it outright, because Ada Palmer is an author of adult books who assumes the reader can keep up. I don’t need the narration to spoon-feed me everything, but apparently some do.
I mean, I understand why someone would be uncomfortable with a narrator who is… a dick, basically, and is intentionally misgendering everyone, but that wasn’t why it got called out.

I didn’t think this was perfect – there were some parts which were based on cissexist assumptions and I don’t think that was intentional, as I don’t think the conversation about sex being in everything and everyone feeling attraction was a comment on the erasure of aspec people instead of actual erasure of aspec people, but if I had to call out every book with cissexism and aphobia, I’d have to call out half of what I read.
Also: there’s no such thing as French features or a Chinese face, and the book really needed a stronger ending than this.

One would think that in a book so full of infodumps the characterization would suffer, but that didn’t happen. Mycroft is a very complex, very compelling, very horrible person, and so are most of the side characters. I loved how the society was built (not because I thought it was perfect!), and I loved how the characters fit in it, and I want to know more about them. I may even read the sequel. I do think that there were too many characters, and I kept confusing the world leaders, but this was a very interesting mess to read.

TL;DR: read it! Then judge me for recommending it to you.

My rating: ★★★★

Acqua: “I hated this.”

Also Acqua: *rates it more highly than any other new novel she has read so far this year*

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

22328546Red Queen is the first book in a YA dystopian series.

The first time I read it, I really liked it, but it was one of the first YA books I had ever read.
I reread it in 2017, and it wasn’t as good as I remembered.

This book came out in 2015. At that time, the dystopian hype was dying, and this kind of story was already cliché. Red Queen is ultimately a mash-up of popular YA books that came out before; no wonder it feels unoriginal. The Darkest Minds. Shatter Me. The Selection. The Hunger Games. But mainly, Shadow and BoneRed Queen is exactly like Shadow and Bone, but written worse and with no understanding of nuance.

First thing first, Red Queen has no idea of where it’s going and what it wants to be. This fantasy/dystopian mix didn’t work for me, and the way the author built the society felt both superficial and unoriginal. The worldbuilding is also inconsistent – you mean we have TVs and superpowers but not cell phones and we have armors? Look, “inspired by the Roman Empire” doesn’t mean you can bring the cool stuff from the past even when it makes no sense.

I liked the characters, but I didn’t love them and I could have done without the love triangle/square. I don’t hate Mare, like many seem to do, but I have to say that she is somewhat forgettable – like everyone else in the book; even the character that should have surprised me was kind of bland. Why? Because I’ve already seen that twist before, done better.

A SPOILERY paragraph: what went wrong according to Acqua.
Now. “The love interest betrayed me” is one of my favorite twists. Even when it’s somewhat predictable, it can bring some really interesting themes to the story – but this works only when the character is morally gray. Here, it was both predictable and useless. If everyone tells you that “anyone can betray anyone”, you see it coming. And there was no moral grayness whatsoever. The character went from “good but kind of useless, really” to “lol I’m evil, I want the reds to die and I want to be king” and… that’s not morally gray. That’s cardboard cutout “for the evulz” villain. Yes, he is more complex than Elara (not difficult, honestly), but he sounded more like a spoiled child than an interesting antagonist.

Also, the writing was overdramatic. It’s like the author wanted to fill this book with “quotable” sentences. Mare constantly reminds us that one mistake could kill her. I get it, you don’t have to tell me every page.

I’m giving this book three stars because it was still entertaining at the third reread, and because there was one thing I really liked – this story is based on the Red Queen hypotesis, which was a great idea. The execution could have been better.

My rating: ★★★¼